Autumn in a Light Touch Garden

First a quick word of apology: I’m so sorry that I haven’t updated this blog for almost seven weeks, but life has been rather frantic of late. However, I had my booster Covid jab a few days ago and I now feel ready for anything. Meanwhile, autumn has suddenly arrived. This morning (November 3rd) I looked out of our bedroom window to see the lawn and paddocks glistening white in the early sunshine. The actual temperature didn’t fall below 2 degrees Celsius, but that was low enough for what people of my father’s generation used to call ‘a grass frost’. We’re close enough to the North Sea not to have full air frosts (zero Celsius and below) until early January. Recently there have been winters when you could count the number of air frosts on the fingers of one hand. Who says global warming isn’t happening? Time for my first photo, which was taken when the garden was open on September 25th and 26th.

It’s such an English scene: people taking tea in a country garden. The decked wooden pergola at the back of the house, which we call the Poop Deck, is now almost completely covered in blue-flowered wisteria which provides very welcome shade in summer and early autumn. Happily for us, we were allowed to serve tea, unlike last year when Covid restrictions meant we could only offer pre-wrapped cake. It took a few days to work out our expenses and donations, but we finally sent the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) a cheque for £1,922.

Over the past two years of pandemic we’ve all owed so much to nurses and the medical profession and I’m glad to say these are the principal charities supported by the NGS. Here’s one other picture of the NGS Open Weekend:

The meadow nearest the house becomes the car park and we generally move sheep out of it a few days in advance, to prevent drivers and passengers treading in warm, soft sheep poo. It’s not quite so bad when it’s hard and dry. This year the poo was nice and dry and members of a local car club must have heard, because they brought some of their vintage autos to the Open Weekend. Here you can see a Riley RM – a wonderfully elegant series of cars produced in the decade following the last war, from 1945-55. Behind it is a pre-War (I think) MG sports car. I love its wire-spoked wheels and flared mudguards. Thanks to these visitors, who arrived appropriately dressed and smiling broadly, for a few hours the car park looked very classy indeed.

It always takes us a couple of days to clear up after the open weekend and then I found myself doing a series of signing sessions at local bookshops, promoting my new book (which came out in early August), Scenes from Prehistoric Life. It has been more than I year since I did a book-signing and it was really great to meet-up with my loyal readers once again. Very few signings were cancelled, but now they seem to have slowed down, and I can detect more than a slight feeling of trepidation as Christmas approaches. Indeed, Maisie and I have decided that from now on we’re both going to be very careful. There’s bound to be a new variant sometime over the winter. And besides, the general national and political atmosphere is so toxic that we both think we’ll be happier at home, with people we know and trust. Sad times.

I returned to earth after an October of signings and took some photos of the garden in the final week before the start of November. There’d been very little autumn colour when we opened the garden at the end of September, but a month later things were very different, although I must say that some things were rather disappointing. Our screen of huge black poplars, for example, just shed their leaves without changing colour. Hawthorn hedges are remaining resolutely green, but viburnums are turning a good red and their berries are positively gleaming. This view across the two main borders has the Poop Deck on the left (now free of tea-drinkers) with the larger trees of the garden in the background. The cut-leaved Rhamnus frangula ‘Asplenifolia’ at the centre of the picture is looking particularly fine. It loves wet, heavy soil.

Maisie and I have never been great enthusiasts for tying up and restraining plants. It’s part of our ‘light touch’ approach to gardening: if a plant is going to bend or collapse we might try to prop it up somehow, preferably with another plant, or with something permanent, like a post, pot or rock. In some situations, like where peonies are growing along narrow paths, we might use permanent frame-like edge supports, but by and large we try to steer clear of temporary fixes, which rarely blend with the rest of the garden. Autumn, however, is when plants really like to flop over and this wet season has been great for floppies, as this view of asters in the main border illustrates. For what it’s worth, in autumn I often carry a lance-like broom-handle pole when I mow this border. I feel a bit like Sir Galahad as I expertly flip the flower stems above the rotating knives of the mulch-mower.

Autumn is also a season of surprises. The long borders and the carefully contrived views into beautifully managed landscapes in great country gardens can come alive in new ways, as the various colours come and go; but in our own garden I also enjoy those unexpected glimpses of old friends, from new angles. We normally look along or down borders but I was strolling through the garden a few days ago when I happened to look across the main border and caught this rather unusual view of ground-cover leaves, perennial seed-heads and shrubs against the green of the still summer-like hornbeam hedge. That view was taken at the centre of the long border at the point where it is crossed by a mown path. Here’s another view of the same area, but now we are viewing it in the way we intended when we laid out the garden.

I’m not saying this more structured view doesn’t work – because it does. Indeed, it’s very ordered and structured, with the clear separation of the pinky-red Euonymous ‘Red Cascade’ and the golden leaf willow ‘Golden Sunshine’. The curving hedged path in the background looks very inviting, too. Yes, it certainly works well, but… But…I know: it lacks the anarchy of the previous picture. Maybe anarchy’s the wrong word, because the plants are all structured and you can’t have structured anarchy (not even in today’s Parliament!). So I think it does come down to a lightness of touch: the second, more structured, view lacks that informal, relaxed element. I believe strongly that a good garden should combine structure and spontaneity. I suppose that’s what I mean by ‘a light touch’.

I made another effort to capture the structured informality of our autumn garden by an even more distant view, which I took through the branches of a screen of pleached limes that runs part of the way between the barn and the house. I make no apology for the huge lime tree leaves framing the picture, which features the two bog garden-style soakaways behind the barn. The red Euonymus and the golden willow that featured so prominently in the previous picture are still at the centre, but at the left-hand end of the prominent hedge (part of the tall one surrounding the vegetable garden). There are several components of the garden’s underlying framework here: two soakaway beds, the small border, the main border and the veg garden hedge, yet they are all drawn together by the mystical forces of autumn to form a unified and harmonious composition. That’s one of the things I love about gardening: every year it produces new surprises. As if to prove myself wrong, I want to end this blog post with a view that I never tire of: the two pampas grasses in the meadow that frame the path into the wood. This year they were looking gorgeously fluffy. I also must confess that I like this view (taken below two white-trunked birches at the edge of the formal garden) because it’s not a welter of emerging autumn colours. There’s something rather sad about the stubborn persistence of dark, late summer greens in certain trees: it’s as if they dreaded winter. I think this year I rather share their forebodings.

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